HotFreeBooks.com
The Fighting Chance
by Robert W. Chambers
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

The youth in him was the tragedy to the old; the sudden silence of the man the danger to the secretive. Harrington was already an old man; Quarrier's own weapon had always been secrecy; but the silence of Plank confused him, for he had never learned to parry well another's use of his own weapon. The left-handed swordsman dreads to cross with a man who fights with the left hand. And Harrington, hoary, seamed, scarred, maimed in onslaughts of long forgotten battles, looked long and hard upon this weird of his own dead youth which now rose towering to confront him, menacing him with the armed point of the same shield behind which he himself had so long found shelter—the Law!

The closing of the courts enforced armed truces along certain lines of Plank's battle front; the adjournment of the legislature emptied Albany. Once it was rumoured that Plank had passed an entire morning with the Governor of the greatest State in the Union and that the conference was to be repeated. A swarm of newspaper men settled about the Governor's summer cottage at Saratoga, but they learned nothing, nor could they find a trace of Plank's tracks in the trodden trails of the great Spa.

Besides, the racing had begun; Desmond, Burbank, Sneed, and others of the gilded guild had opened new club-houses; the wretched, half-starved natives in the surrounding hills were violating the game-laws to distend the paunches of the overfed with five-inch troutlings and grouse and woodcock slaughtered out of season; so there was plenty of copy for newspaper men without the daily speculative paragraph devoted to the doings of Beverly Plank. Some scandal, too—but newspapers never touch that; and after all it was nobody's affair that Leroy Mortimer drove a large yellow and black Serin-Chanteur touring-car, new model, all over Saratoga county. Perhaps the similarity of machines gave rise to the rumour of Plank's presence; perhaps not, because the car was often driven by a tall, slender girl with dark eyes and hair; and nobody ever saw that sort of pretty woman in Plank's Serin, or saw Leroy Mortimer for many days without a companion of that species.

Mortimer's health was excellent. The races had not proved remunerative however, and his new motor-car was horribly expensive. So was Lydia. And he began to be seriously afraid that by the end of August he would be obliged to apply to Quarrier once more for some slight temporary token of that gentleman's goodwill. He told Lydia this, and she seemed to agree with him. This pleased him. She had not pleased him very much recently. For one thing she was becoming too friendly with some of his friends—Desmond in particular.

Plank, it was known, had opened his great house at Black Fells. His servants, gamekeepers, were there; his stables, kennels, greenhouses, model stock-farm—all had been put in immaculate condition pending the advent of the master. But Plank had not appeared; his new sea-going steam yacht still lay in the East River, and, at rare intervals, a significant glimmer of bunting disclosed the owner's presence aboard for an hour or two. That was all, however; and the cliff-watchers at Shotover House and the Fells looked seaward in vain for the big Siwanoa, as yacht after yacht, heralded by the smudge on the horizon, turned from a gray speck to a white one, and crept in from the sea to anchor.

The Ferralls were at Shotover with their first instalment of guests. Sylvia was there, Quarrier expected—because Kemp Ferrall's break with him was not a social one, and Grace's real affection for Sylvia blinded neither her nor her husband to the material and social importance of the intimacy. Siward was not invited; neither had an invitation to him been even discussed in view of what Grace was aware of, and what everybody knew concerning the implacable relations existing between him, personally, and Howard Quarrier.

Bridge, yachting, and motoring were the August sports; the shooting set had not yet arrived, of course; in fact there was still another relay expected before the season opened and brought the shooting coterie for the first two weeks. But Sylvia was expected to last through and hold over with a brief interlude for a week's end at Lenox. So was Quarrier; and Grace, always animated by a lively but harmless malice, hoped to Heaven that Plank might arrive before Quarrier left, because she adored the tension of situations and was delightedly persuaded that Plank was more than able to hold his own with her irritating cousin.

"Oh, to see them together in a small room," she sighed ecstatically in Sylvia's ear; "I'd certainly poke them up if they only turned around sulkily in the corners of the cage and evinced a desire to lie down."

"What a mischief-maker you are," said Sylvia listlessly; and though Grace became very vivacious in describing her plans to extract amusement out of Plank's hoped-for presence Sylvia remained uninterested.

There seemed, in fact, little to interest her that summer at Shotover House; and, though she never refused any plans made for her, and her attitude was one of quiet acquiescence always—she never expressed a preference for anything, a desire to do anything; and, if let alone, was prone to pace the cliffs or stretch her slim, rounded body on the sand of some little, sheltered, crescent beach, apparently content with the thunderous calm of sea and sky.

Her interest, too, in people had seemingly been extinguished. Once or twice she did inquire as to Marion's whereabouts, and learned that Miss Page was fishing in Minnesota somewhere but would return to Shotover when the shooting opened. Somebody, Captain Voucher, perhaps, mentioned to somebody in her hearing that Siward was still in New York. If she heard she made no sign, no inquiry. The next morning she remained abed with a headache, and Grace motored to Wendover without her; but Sylvia spent the balance of the day on the cliffs, and played Bridge with the devil's own luck till dawn, piling up a score that staggered Mr. Fleetwood, who had been instructing her in adversary play a day or two before.

The hot month dragged on; Quarrier came; Agatha Caithness arrived a few days later—scheme of the Ferralls involving Alderdene!—but the Siwanoa did not come, and Plank remained invisible. Leila Mortimer arrived from Swan's Harbour toward the middle of the month, offering no information as to the whereabouts of what Major Belwether delicately designated as her "legitimate." But everybody knew he was at last to be crossed off and struck clean out, and the ugly history of the winter, now so impudently corroborated at Saratoga, gave many a hostess the opportunity long desired. Mortimer, as far as his own particular circle was concerned, was down and out; Leila, accepted as a matter of course without him, remained quietly uncommunicative. If the outward physical change in her was due to her marital rupture people thought it was well that it had come in time, for she bloomed like a lovely exotic; and her silences and enthusiasms, and the fragrant freshness of her developing attitude toward the world first disconcerted, then amused, then touched those who had supposed themselves to be so long a buckler for her foibles and a shield for her caprice.

"Gad," said Alderdene, "she's well rid of him if he's been choking her this long—the rank, rotten weed that he is, sapping the life from her so when she hung over toward another fellow's bush we thought she was frail in the stem—God bless us all for a simpering lot of blatherskites!"

And if, in the corner of the gun-room, there was a man among them who had ever ventured to hold Leila's smooth little hand, unrebuked, in days gone by, none the less he knew that Alderdene spoke truth; and none the less he knew that what witness he might be called to bear at the end of the end of all must only incriminate himself and not that young matron who now, before their very eyes, was budding again, reverting to the esoteric charm of youth reincarnated.

"A suit before a referee would settle him," mused Voucher; "he hasn't a leg to stand on. Lord! The same cat that tripped up Stephen Siward!"

Fleetwood's quick eyes glimmered for an instant in Quarrier's direction. Quarrier was in the billiard-room, out of earshot, practising balk-line problems with Major Belwether; and Fleetwood said: "The same cat that tripped up Stephen Siward. Yes. But who let her loose?"

"It was your dinner; you ought to know," said Voucher bluntly.

"I do know. He brought her"—nodding toward the billiard-room.

"Belwether?"

"No," yawned Fleetwood.

Somebody said presently: "Isn't he one of the Governors? Oh, I say, that was rather rough on Siward though."

"Yes, rough. The law of trespass ought to have operated; a man's liable for the damage done by his own live-stock."

"That's a brutal way of talking," said somebody. And the subject was closed with the entrance of Agatha in white flannels on her way to the squash court where she had an appointment with Quarrier.

"A strange girl," said somebody after she had disappeared with Quarrier.

"That pallor is stunning," said a big, ruddy youth, with sunburn on his neck and forehead.

"It isn't healthy," said Fleetwood.

"It attracts me," persisted the ruddy young man, voicing naively that curious truth concerning the attraction that disease so often exerts on health—the strange curiosity the normal has for the sub-normal—that fascination of the wholesome for the unhealthy. It is, perhaps, more curiosity than anything, unless, deep hidden under the normal, there lie one single, perverted nerve.

Sylvia, passing the hall, glanced in through the gun-room door with an absentminded smile at the men and their laughing greeting, as they rose with uplifted glasses to salute her.

"The sweetest of all," observed a man, disconsolately emptying his glass. "Oh irony! What a marriage!"

"Do you know any girl who would not change places with her?" asked another.

Every man there insisted that he knew one girl at least who would not exchange Sylvia's future for her own. That was very nice of them; it is to be hoped they believed it. Some of them did—for the moment, anyhow. Then Alderdene, blinking furiously, emitted one of his ear-racking laughs; and everybody, as usual, laughed too.

"You damned cynic," observed Voucher affectionately.

"Somebody," said Fleetwood, "insists that she doubled up poor Siward."

"She never met Siward until she was engaged to Howard," remarked Voucher.

"Well?"

"Oh, don't you consider that enough to squelch the story?"

"Engaged girls," mused Alderdene, "never double up except at Bridge."

"Everybody has been or is in love with Sylvia Landis," said Voucher, "and it's a man's own fault if he's hit. Once she did it, innocently enough, and enjoyed it, never realising that it hurt a man to be doubled up."

Fleetwood yawned again and said: "She can have me to-morrow. But she won't. She's tired of the sport. Any girl would get enough with the pack at her heels day in and day out. Besides she's done for—unless she looses Quarrier and starts on a duke-hunt over in Blinky's country! ... Is anybody on for a sail? Is anybody on for anything? No? Oh, very well. Shove that decanter north by west, Billy."

This was characteristic of the dog-days at Shotover. The dog-days in town were very different; the city threw open the parks to the poor at night; horses fell dead in the streets; pallid urchins, stripped naked, splashed and rolled and screeched in the basin of the City Hall fountain under the indifferent eyes of the police.

As for Plank he was too busy to know what the thermometer was about; he had no time for anything outside of his own particular business except to go every day to the big, darkened house in lower Fifth Avenue where the days had been hard on Siward and the nights harder.

Siward, however, could walk now, using his crutches still, but often stopping to gently test his left foot and see how much weight he was able to bear on it—even taking a tentative step or two without crutch support. He drove when he thought it prudent to use the horses in the heat, usually very early in the morning, though sometimes at night with Plank when the latter had time to run his touring-car through the park and out into the Bronx or Westchester for a breath of air.

But Plank wanted him to go away, get out of the city for his convalescence, and Siward flatly declined, demanding that Plank permit him to do his share in the fight against the Inter-County people.

And Plank, utterly unable to persuade him, and the more hampered because of his anxiety about Siward—though that young man did not know it—wore himself out providing Siward with such employment in the matter as would lightly occupy him without doing any good to the enemy.

So Siward, stripped to his pajamas, pored over reams of typewritten matter and took his brief walking exercise in the comparative cool of the evening and drove when he dared use his horses; or, sitting beside Plank, whizzed northward through the starry darkness of the suburbs.

When it was that he first began to like Plank very much he could not exactly remember. He was not, perhaps, aware of how much he liked him. Plank's unexpected fits of shyness, of formality, often and often amused him. But there was a subtler feeling under the unexpressed amusement, and, beneath all, a constantly increasing sub-stratum of respect. Too, he found himself curiously at ease with Plank, as with one born to his own caste. And this feeling, unconscious, but more and more apparent, meant more to Plank than anything that had ever happened to him. It was a tonic in hours of doubt, a pleasure in his brief leisure, a pride never to be hinted at, never to be guessed, never to be dreamed of by any living soul save Plank alone.

Then, one sultry day toward the last week in August, a certain judge of a certain court, known among some as "Harrington's judge," sent secretly for Plank. And Plank knew that the crisis was over. But neither Harrington nor Quarrier dreamed of such a thing.

Fear sat heavy on that judge's soul—the godless, selfish fear that sends the first coward slinking from the councils of conspiracy to seek immunity from those slowly grinding millstones that grind exceeding fine.

Quarrier at Shotover, with his private car and his locomotive within an hour's drive, strolled with Sylvia on the eve of her departure for Lenox with Leila Mortimer; then, when their conference was ended, he returned to Agatha, calmly unconscious of impending events.

Harrington, at Seabright, paced his veranda, awaiting this same judge, annoyed as two boats came in without the expected guest. And never for one instant did he dream that his creature sat closeted with Plank, tremulous, sallow, nearing the edge of cringing avowal—only held back from utter collapse by the agonising necessity of completing a bargain that might save himself from the degradation of the punishment that had seemed inevitable. All day long he sat with Plank. Nobody except those two knew he was there. And after a very long time Plank consented that nobody else except Siward and Harrington and Quarrier should ever know. So he called up Harrington on the telephone, saying that there was, in the office, somebody who desired to speak to him. And when Harrington caught the judge's first faint, stammered word he reeled where he stood, ashen, unbelieving, speechless. The shaking but remorseless voice went on, dinning horribly in his ear, then ceased, and Plank's heavy voice sounded the curt coup de grace.

Harrington was an old man, a very old man, mortally hurt; but he steadied himself along the wall of his study to the desk and sank into the chair.

There he sat, feeling the scars of old wounds throbbing, feeling his age and the tragedy of it, and the new sensation of fear—fear of the wraith of his own youth, wearing the mask of Plank, and menacing him with the menace he had used on others so long ago—so very long ago.

After a little while he passed a thin hand over his eyes, over his gray head, over the mouth that all men watched with fear, over the shaven jaw now grimly set, but trembling. His hand, too, shook with palsy as he wrote, painfully picking out the words and figures of the cipher from his code-book; but he closed his thin lips and squared his unsteady jaw and wrote his message to Quarrier:

"It is all up. Plank will take over Inter-County. Come at once."

And that was all there was to be done until he could come into Plank's camp with arms and banners, a conquered man, cynical of the mercy he dared not expect and which, in all his life, he had never, never shown to man, to woman, or to child.

Plank slept the sleep of utter exhaustion that night; the morning found him haggard but strong, cool in his triumph, serious, stern faced, almost sad that his work was done, the battle won.

From his own house he telegraphed a curt summons to Harrington and to Quarrier for a conference in his own office; then, finishing whatever business his morning mail required, put on his hat and went to see the one man in the world he was most glad for.

He found him at breakfast, sipping coffee and wrinkling his brows over the eternal typewritten pages. And Plank's face cleared at the sight and he sat down, laughing aloud.

"It's all over, Siward," he said. "Harrington knows it; Quarrier knows it by this time. Their judge crawled in yesterday and threw himself on our mercy; and the men whose whip he obeyed will be on their way to surrender by this time. ... Well! Haven't you a word?"

"Many," said Siward slowly; "too many to utter, but not enough to express what I feel. If you will take two on account, here they are in one phrase: thank you."

"Debt's cancelled," said Plank, laughing. "Do you want to hear the details?"

They talked for an hour, and, in the telling, even Plank's stolidity gave way sufficient to make his heavy voice ring at moments, and the glimmer of excitement edge his eyes. Yet, in the telling, he scarcely mentioned himself, never hinted of the personal part—the inspiration which was his alone; the brunt of the battle which centred in him; the tireless vigilance; the loneliness of the nights when he lay awake, perplexed with doubt and nobody to counsel him—because men who wage such wars are lonely men and must work out their own salvation. No, nobody but his peers could advise him; and he had thought that his enemy was his peer, until that enemy surrendered.

The narrative exchanged by Plank in return for Siward's intensely interested questions was a simple, limpid review of a short but terrific campaign that only yesterday had threatened to rage through court after court, year after year. In the sudden shock of the cessation from battle, Plank himself was a little dazed. Yet he himself had expected the treason that ended all; he himself had foreseen it. He had counted on it as a good general counts on such things, confidently, but with a dozen plans as substitutes in case that plan failed—each plan as elaborately worked out to the last detail as though it alone existed as the only hope of victory. But if Siward suspected something of this it was not from Plank that he learned it.

"Plank," he said at last, "there is nothing in the world that men admire more than a man. It is a good deal of a privilege for me to tell you so."

Plank turned red with surprise and embarrassment, stammering out something incoherent.

That was all that was said about the victory. Siward, unusually gay for awhile, presently turned sombre; and it was Plank's turn to lift him out of it by careless remarks about his rapid convalescence, and the chance for vacation he so much needed.

Once Siward looked up vacantly: "Where am I to go?" he asked. "I'd as soon stay here."

"But I'm going," insisted Plank. "The Fells is all ready for us."

"The Fells! I can't go there!"

"W-what?" faltered Plank, looking at Siward with hurt eyes.

"Can't you—don't you understand?" said Siward in a low voice.

"No. You once promised—"

"Plank, I'll go anywhere except there with you. I'd rather be with you than with anybody. Can I say more than that?"

"I think you ought to, Siward. A—a fellow feels the refusal of his offered roof-tree."

"Man! man! it isn't your roof I am refusing. I want to go; I'd give anything to go. If it were anywhere except where it is, I'd go fast enough. Now do you understand? If—if Shotover House and Shotover people were not next door to the Fells, I'd go. Now do you understand?"

Plank said: "I don't know whether I understand. If you mean Quarrier, he's on his way here, and he'll have business to keep him here for the next few months, I assure you. But"—he looked very gravely across at Siward—"if you don't mean Quarrier—" He hesitated, ill at ease under the expressionless scrutiny of the other.

"Do you know what's the matter with me, Plank?" he asked at length.

"I think so."

"I have wondered. I wonder now how much you know."

"Very little, Siward."

"How much?"

Plank looked up, hesitated, and shook his head: "One infers from what one hears."

"Infers what?"

"The truth, I suppose," replied Plank simply.

"And what," insisted Siward, "have you inferred that you believe to be the truth? Don't parry, Plank; it isn't easy for me, and I—I never before spoke this way to any man. ... It is likely I should have spoken to my mother about it. ... I had expected to. It may be weakness—I don't know; but I'd like to talk a little about it to somebody. And there's nobody fit to listen, except you."

"If you feel that way," said Plank slowly, "I will be very glad to listen."

"I feel that way. I've been through—some things; I've been pretty sick, Plank. It tires a man out; a man's head and shoulders get tired. Oh, I don't mean the usual reaction from self-contempt, disgust—the dreadful, aching sadness of it all which lasts even while desire, stunned for the moment, wakens into craving. I don't mean that. It is something else—a deathly, mental solitude that terrifies. I tell you, no man except a man smitten by my malady knows what solitude can be! ... There! I didn't mean to be theatrical; I had no intention of—"

"Go on," cut in Plank heavily.

"Go on! ... Yes, I want to. You know what a pillow is to a tired man's shoulders. I want to use your sane intelligence to rest on a moment. It's my brain that's tired, Plank."

Although everybody had cynically used Plank, nobody had ever before found him a necessity.

"Go on," he said unsteadily. "If I can be of use to you, Siward, in God's name let me be, for I have never been necessary to anybody in all my life."

Siward rested his head on one clinched hand: "How much chance do you think I have?" he asked wearily.

"Chance to get well?"

"Yes."

Plank considered for a moment, then: "You are not trying, Siward."

"I have been trying since—since March."

"Since March?"

"Yes."

Plank looked at him curiously: "What happened in March?"

"Had I better tell you?"

"You know better than I."

Siward, cheek crushed against his fist, his elbow on the desk, gazed at him steadily:

"In March," he said, "Miss Landis spoke to me. I've made a better fight since."

Plank's serious face darkened. "Is she the only anchor you have?"

"Plank, I am not even sure of her. I have made a better fight since then; that is all I dare say. I know what men think about a man like me; I knew they demand character, pride, self-denial. But, Plank, I am driving faster and faster toward the breakers, and these anchors are dragging. For it is not, in my case, the physical failure to obey the will; it is the will itself that has been attacked from the first. That is the horror of it. And what is there behind the will-power to strengthen it? Only the source of will-power—the mind. It is the mind that cannot help me. What am I to do?"

"There is a spiritual strength," said Plank timidly.

"I have never dreamed of denying it," said Siward. "I have tried to find it through the accepted sources—accepted by me, too. God has not helped me in the conventional way or through traditional methods; but that has not inclined me to doubt Him as the tribunal of last resort," he added hastily. "I don't for a moment waver in faith because I am ignorant of the proper manner to approach Him. The Arbiter of all knows that I desire to be decent. He must be aware, too, that all anchors save one have failed to hold me."

"You mean—Miss Landis?"

"Yes. It may be weakness; it may be to my shame that the cables of pride and self-respect, even the spiritual respect for the Highest, cannot hold me when this one anchor holds. All I know is that it holds—so far. It held me at Shotover; it holds me again, now. And the rocks were close abeam, Plank—very close—when she spoke to me over the wires, through the rain, that dark day in March."

He moistened his lips feverishly.

"She said that I might see her. I have waited a long time. I have taken my fighting chance again and I've won out, so far."

He looked up at Plank, curiously embarrassed:

"Your body is normal; your intelligence wholesome, balanced, sane; and I want to ask you if you think that perhaps, without understanding how, I have found in her, or through her, in some way, the spiritual source that I think might help me to help myself?"

And, as Plank made no reply:

"Or am I talking sentimental cant? Don't answer, if you think that. I can't trust my own mind any more, anyway; and," with an ugly laugh, "I'll know it all some day—the sooner the better!"

"Don't say that!" growled Plank. "You were sane a moment ago."

Siward looked up sharply, but the other silenced him with a gesture.

"Wait! You asked me a perfectly sane question—so wholesome, so normal, that I'm trying to frame an answer worthy of it! I intimated that after the physical, the mental, the ethical phenomena, there remained always the spiritual instinct. Like a wireless current, if a man can establish communication it is well for him, whatever the method. You assented, I think."

"Yes."

"And you ask me if I believe it possible that she can be the medium?"

"Yes."

Plank said deliberately: "Yes, I do think so."

The silence was again broken by Plank: "Siward, you have asked me what I think. Now you must listen to the end. If you believed that through her—her love, marrying her—you stood the best chance in the world to win out, it would be cowardly to ask her to take the risk. As much as I care for you I had rather see you lose the fight than accept such a risk from her. Now you know what I think—but you don't know all. Siward, I say to you that if you are man enough to take her, take her! And I say that of the two risks she is running to-day, the chance she might take with you is infinitely the lesser risk. For with you, if you continue slowly losing your fight, the mental suffering only will be hers. But if she closes this bargain with Quarrier, selling to him her body, the light will go out of her soul for ever."

He leaned heavily toward Siward, stretching out his powerful arm:

"You marry her; and keep open your spiritual communication through her, if that is the way it has been established, and hang on to your God that way until your body is dead! I tell you, Siward, to marry her. I don't care how you do it; I don't care how you get her. Take her! Yours, of the two, is the stronger character, or she would not be where she is. Does she want what you cannot give her? Cure that desire—it is more contemptible than the craving that shatters you! I say, let the one-eyed lead the blind. Miracles are worked out by mathematics—if you have faith enough."

He rose, striding the length of the room once or twice, turned, holding out his broad hand:

"Good-bye," he said. "Harrington is about due at my office; Quarrier will probably turn up to-night. I am not vindictive; I shall be just with them—as just as I know how, which is to be as merciful as I dare be. Good-bye, Siward. I—I believe you and she are going to get well."

When he had gone, Siward lay back in his chair, very still, eyes closed. A faint colour had mounted to his face and remained there.

It was late in the afternoon when he went down-stairs, using his crutches lightly. Gumble handed him a straw hat and opened the door, and Siward cautiously descended the stoop, stood for a few moments on the sidewalk, looking up at the blue sky, then wheeled and slowly made his way toward Washington Square. The avenue was deserted; his own house appeared to be the only remaining house still open in all that old-fashioned but respectable quarter.

He swung leisurely southward, a slim, well-built young fellow, strangely out of place on crutches. The poor always looked at him; beggars never importuned him, yet found him agreeable to watch. Children, who seldom look up into the air far enough to notice grown people, always became conscious of him when he passed; often smiled, sometimes spoke. As for stray curs and tramp cats, they were for ever making advances. As long as he could remember, there was scarcely a week in town but some homeless dog attached himself to Siward's heels, sometimes trotting several blocks, sometimes following him home—where the outcast was always cared for, washed, fed, and ultimately shipped out to the farm, where scores of these "fresh-air" dogs resided on his bounty and rolled in luxury on his lawns.

Cats, too, were prone to notice him, rising as he passed to hoist an interrogative tail and make tentative observations.

In Washington Square, these, and the ragged children, knew him best of all. The children came from Minetta Lane and the purlieus south and west of it; the cats from the Mews, which Siward always thought most appropriate.

And now, as he passed the marble arch and entered the square, glancing behind him he saw the inevitable cat trotting, and, at his left, a very dirty little girl pretending to trundle a hoop, but plainly enough keeping sociable pace with him.

"Hello!" said Siward. The cat stopped; the child tossed her clustering curls, gave him a rapid but fearless sidelong glance, laughed, and ran on in the wake of her hoop. When she caught it she sat down on a bench opposite the fountain and looked around at Siward.

"It's pretty warm, isn't it?" said Siward, coming up and seating himself on the same bench.

"Are you lame?" asked the child.

"Oh, a little."

"Is your leg broken?"

"Oh, no, not now."

"Is that your cat?"

Siward looked around; the cat was seated on the bench beside him. But he was accustomed to that sort of thing, and he caressed the creature with his gloved hand.

"Are you rich?" asked the child, shaking her blond curls from her eyes and staring up solemnly at him.

"Not very," he answered, smiling. "Why do you ask?"

"You look rich, somehow," said the child shyly.

"What! With these old and very faded clothes?"

She shook her head, swinging her plump legs: "You look it, somehow. It isn't the clothes that matter."

"I'll tell you one thing," said Siward, laughing "I'm rich enough to buy all the hokey-pokey you can eat!" and he glanced meaningly at the pedlar of that staple who had taken station between a vender of peaches and a Greek flower-seller.

The child looked, too, but made no comment.

"How about it?" asked Siward.

"I'd rather have something to remember you by," said the girl innocently.

"What?" he said, perplexed.

"A rose. They are five cents, and hokey-pokey costs that much—I mean, for as much as you can eat."

"Do you really want a rose?" he said amused.

But the child fell shy, and he beckoned the Greek and selected a dozen big, perfumed jacks.

Then, as the child sat silent, her ragged arms piled with roses, he asked her jestingly what else she desired.

"Nothing. I like to look at you," she answered simply.

"And I like to look at you. Will you tell me your name?"

"Molly."

But that is all the information he could extract. Presently she said she was going, hesitated, looked a very earnest good-bye, and darted away across the park, her hoop over one arm, the crimson roses bobbing above her shoulders. Something in her flight attracted the errant cat, for she, too, jumped down and bounded after the little flying feet, but, catlike, halted half-way to scratch, and then forgetting what she was about, wandered off toward the Mews again, whence she had been lured by instinctive fascination.

Siward, intensely amused, sat there in the late sunlight which streamed through the park, casting long shadows from the elms and sycamores. It was that time of the day, just before sunset, when the old square looked to him as he remembered it as a child. Even the marble arch, pink in the evening sun, did not disturb the harmony of his memories. He saw his father once more, walking home from down town, tall, slim, laughingly stopping to watch him as he played there with the other children—the nurses, seated in a row, crocheting under the sycamores; he saw the old-fashioned carriage pass, Mockett on the box, Wands beside him, and his pretty mother leaning forward to wave her hand to him as the long-tailed, long-maned horses wheeled into Fifth Avenue. Little unimportant scenes, trivial episodes, grew in the spectral garden of memory: the first time he ever saw Marion Page, when, aged five, she was attempting to get into the fountain, pursued by a shrieking nurse; and a certain flight across the grass he had indulged in with Leila Mortimer, then Leila Egerton, aged six, in hot pursuit, because she found that it bored him horribly to be kissed, and she was bound to do it. He had a fight once, over by that gnarled, old, silver poplar-tree, with Kemp Ferrall—he could not remember what about, only that they ended by unanimously assaulting their nurses and were dragged howling homeward.

He turned, looking across to where the gray towers of the University once stood. There had been an old stone church there, too; and, south of that, old, old houses with hip-roofs and dormers where now the high white cliffs of modern architecture rose, riddled with tiny windows, every vane glittering in the sun. South, the old houses still remained, now degraded to sordid uses. North, the square, red-brick mansions, with their white pillars and steps, still faced the sunset—the last practically unbroken rank of the old regime, the last of the old guard, standing fast and still confronting, still resisting the Inevitable looming in limestone and granite, story piled on story, aloft in the kindling, southern sky.

A cab, driven smartly, passed through the park, the horses' feet slapping the asphalt till the echoes rattled back from the marble arch. He followed it idly with his eyes up Fifth Avenue; saw it suddenly halt in the middle of the street; saw a woman spring out, stand for a moment talking to her companion, then turn and look toward the square.

She stood so long, and she was so far away, that he presently grew tired of watching her. A dozen ragged urchins were prowling around the fountain, casting sidelong glances at a distant policeman. But it was not hot enough that evening to permit the children to splash in the water, and the policeman drove them off.

"Poor little devils!" said Siward to himself; and he rose, adjusted his crutches, and started through the park with a vague idea of seeing what could be done.

As he limped onward, the sun level in his eyes, he heard somebody speak behind him, but did not catch the words or apply the hail to himself. Then, "Mr. Siward!" came the low, breathless voice at his elbow.

His heart stopped as he did. The sun had dazzled his eyes, and when he turned on his crutches he could not see clearly for a second. That past, he looked at Sylvia, looked at her outstretched hand, took it mechanically, still staring at her with only a dazed unbelief in his eyes.

"I am in town for a day," she said. "Leila Mortimer and I were driving up town from the bank when we saw you; and the next thing that happened was me, on Fifth Avenue, running after you—no, the next thing was my flying leap from the hansom, and my standing there looking down the street and across the square where you sat. Then Leila told me I was probably crazy, and I immediately confirmed her diagnosis by running after you!"

She stood laughing, flushed, sunburned, and breathless, her left hand still in his, her right hand laid over it.

"Oh," she said, with a sudden change to anxiety, "does it tire you to stand?"

"No. I was going to saunter along."

"May I saunter with you for a moment? I mean—I only mean, I am glad to see you."

"Do you think I am going to let you go now?" he asked, astonished.

She looked at him, then her eyes evaded his: "Let us walk a little," she said, withdrawing her hand, "if you think you are strong enough."

"Strong! Look, Sylvia!" and he stood unsupported by his crutches, then walked a little way, slowly, but quite firmly. "I am rather a coward about my foot, that is all. I shall not lug these things about after to-day."

"Did the doctor say you might?"

"Yes, after to-day. I could walk home now without them. I could do a good many things I couldn't do a few minutes ago. Isn't that curious?"

"Very," she said, avoiding his eyes.

He laughed. She dared not look at him. The excitement and impetus of sheer impulse had carried her this far; now all the sadness of it was clutching hard at her throat and for awhile she could not speak—walking there in her dainty, summer gown beside him, the very incarnation of youth and health, with the sea-tan on wrist and throat, and he, white, hollow-eyed, crippled, limping, at her elbow!

Yet at that very moment his whole frame seemed to glow and his heart clamour with the courage in it, for he was thinking of Plank's words and he knew Plank had spoken the truth. She could not give herself to Quarrier, if he stood firm. His was the stronger will after all; his was the right to interfere, to stop her, to check her, to take her, draw her back—as he had once drawn her from the fascination of destruction when she had swayed out too far over the cliffs at Shotover.

"Do you remember that?" he asked, and spoke of the incident.

"Yes, I remember," she replied, smiling.

"Doctors say" he continued, "that there is a weak streak in people who are affected by great heights, or who find a dizzy fascination drawing them toward the brink of precipices."

"Do you mean me?" she asked, amused.

But he continued serenely: "You have seen those pigeons called 'tumbler pigeons' suddenly turn a cart-wheel in mid-air? Scientists say it's not for pleasure they do it; it's because they get dizzy. In other words, they are not perfectly normal."

She said, laughing: "Well, you never saw me turn a cart-wheel!"

"Only a moral one," he replied airily.

"Stephen, what on earth do you mean? You're not going to be disagreeable, are you?"

"I am going to be so agreeable," he said, laughing, "that you will find it very difficult to tear yourself away."

"I have no doubt of it, but I must, and very soon."

"I'm not going to let you."

"It can't be helped," she said, looking up at him. "I came in with Leila. We're asked to Lenox for the week's end. We go to Stockbridge on the early train to-morrow morning.

"I don't care," he said doggedly; "I'm not going to let you go yet."

"If I took to my heels here in the park would you chase me, Stephen?" she asked with mock anxiety.

"Yes; and if I couldn't run fast enough I'd call that policeman. Now do you begin to understand?"

"Oh, I've always understood that you were spoiled. I'm partly guilty of the spoiling process, too. Listen: I'll walk with you a little way"—she looked at him—"a little way," she continued gently; "then I must go. There is only a caretaker in our house and Leila will be furious if I leave her all alone. Besides, we're going to dine there and it won't be very gay if I don't give a few orders first."

"But you brought your maid?"

"Naturally."

"Then telephone her that you and Leila are dining out."

"Where, silly? Do you want us to dine somewhere with you?"

"Want you! You've got to!"

"Stephen, it isn't best."

"It is best."

She turned to him impulsively: "Oh, I do want to so much! Do you think I might? It is perfectly delicious to see you again. I—you have no idea—"

"Yes, I have," he said sternly.

They turned, walking past the fountain toward Fifth Avenue again. Furtively she glanced at his hands with the city pallor on them as they grasped the cross-bars of the crutches, then looked up at his worn face. He was much thinner, but now in the softly fading light the shadows under the eyes and cheek-bones seemed less sharp, his face fuller and more boyish; the contour of head and shoulders, the short, crisp hair were as she remembered—and the old charm held her, the old fascination grew, tightening her throat, stealing through every vein, stirring her pulses, awakening imperceptibly once more the best in her. The twilight of a thousand years seemed to slip from the world as she looked out at it through eyes opening from a long, long sleep; the marble arch burned rosy in the evening glow; a fairy haze hung over the enchanted avenue, stretching away, away into the blue magic of the city of dreams.

"There is no use," she said under her breath; "I can't go back to Leila. Stephen, the dreadful part of it is that I—I wish she were in Jericho! I wish the whole world were in Ballyhoo, and you and I alone once more!"

Under their gay laughter quivered the undertone of excitement. Sylvia said:

"I'd like to talk to you all alone. It won't do, of course; but I may say what I'd like—mayn't I? What time is it? If I'm dining with you we've got to have Leila for convention's sake, if not from motives of sheer decency, which you and I seem to lack, Stephen."

"We lack decency," said Siward, "and we're proud of it. As for Leila, I am going to arrange for her very simply but very beautifully. Plank will take care of her. Sylvia! There's not a soul in town and we can be as imprudent as we please."

"No, we can't. Agatha's at the Santa Regina. She came down with us."

"But we are not going to dine at the Santa Regina. We're going where Agatha wouldn't intrude her colourless nose—to a thoroughly unfashionable and selectly common resort overlooking the classic Harlem; and we're going to whiz thither in Plank's car, and remain thither until you yawn for mercy, whence we will return thence—"

"Stephen, you silly! I'm perfectly mad to go with you!"

"You'll be madder when you get there, if the table has not improved."

"Table! As though tables mattered on a night like this!" Then with sudden self-reproach and quick solicitude: "Am I making you walk too far? Wouldn't you like to go in now?"

"No, I'm not tired; I'm millions of years younger, and I'm as strong as the nine gods of your friend Porsena. Besides, haven't I waited for this?" and under his breath, fiercely, "Haven't I waited!" he repeated, turning on her.

"Do—do you mean that as a reproach?" she asked, lowering her eyes.

"No. I knew you would not come on 'the first sunny day.'"

"Why did you think I would not come? Did you know me for the coward I am?"

"I did not think you would come," he repeated, halting to rest on his crutches. He stood, balanced, staring dreamily into the dim perspective; and again her fascinated eyes ventured to rest on the worn, white face, listless, sombre in its fixedness.

The tears were very near her eyes; the spasm in her throat checked speech. At length she stammered: "I did not come b-because I simply couldn't stand it!"

His face cleared as he turned quietly: "Child, you must not confuse matters. You must not think of being sorry for me. The old order is passing—ticking away on every clock in the world. All that inverted order of things is being reversed. You don't know what I mean, do you? Ah, well; you will know when I grow into something of what you think you remember in me, and when I grow out of what I really was."

"Truly I don't understand, Stephen. But then—I am out of training since you went—went out of things. Have I changed? Do I seem more dull? I—it has not been very gay with me. I don't see—looking back across all the noise, all the chaos of the winter—I do not see how I stood it alone."

"Alone?"

"N-not seeing you—sometimes."

He looked at her with smiling, sceptical eyes. "Didn't you enjoy the winter?"

"Do you enjoy being drugged with champagne?"

His face altered so quickly that, confused, she only stared at him, the fixed smile stamped on her lips; then, overwhelmed in the revelation:

"Stephen, surely, surely you know what I meant! I did not mean that! Dear, do you dream for one moment that—that I could—"

"No. You have not hurt me. Besides, I know what you mean."

After a moment he swung forward on his crutches, biting his lip, the frown gathering between his temples.

They were passing the big, old-fashioned hotel with its white facade and green blinds, a lingering landmark of the older city.

"We'll telephone here," he said.

Side by side they went up the great, broad stoop and entered the lobby.

"If you'll speak to Leila, I'll get Plank on the wire. Say that we'll stop for you at seven."

She gave her number; then, at the nod of the operator, entered a small booth. Siward was given another booth in a few moments.

Plank answered from his office; his voice sounded grave and tired but it quickened, tinged with surprise, when Siward made known his plan for the evening.

"Is Mrs. Mortimer in town?" he demanded. "I had a wire from her that she expected to be here and I hoped to see her at the station to-morrow on her way to Lenox."

"She's stopping with Miss Landis. Can't you manage to come?" asked Siward anxiously.

"I don't know. Do you wish it particularly? I have just seen Quarrier and Harrington. I can't quite understand Quarrier's attitude. There's a certain hint of defiance about it. Harrington is all caved in. He is ready to thank us for any mercies. But Quarrier—there's something I don't fancy, don't exactly understand about his attitude. He's like a dangerous man whom you've searched for concealed weapons, and who knows you've overlooked the knife up his sleeve. That's why I've expected to spend a quiet evening, studying up the matter and examining every loophole."

"You've got to dine somewhere," said Siward. "If you could fix it to dine with us—But I won't urge you."

"All right. I don't know why I shouldn't. I don't know why I feel this way about things. I—I rather felt—you'll laugh, Siward!—that somehow I'd better not go out of my own house to-night; that I was safer, better off in my own house, studying this Quarrier matter out. I'm tired, I suppose; and this man Quarrier has come close to worrying me. But it's all right, of course, if you wish it. You know I haven't any nerves."

"If you are tired—" began Siward.

"No, no, I'm not. I'll go. Will you say that we'll stop for them at seven? Really, it's all right, Siward."

"I don't want to urge you," repeated Siward.

"You're not. I'll go. But—wait one moment tell me, did Quarrier know that Mrs. Mortimer was to stop with Miss Landis?"

"Wait a moment. Hold the wire."

He opened the door of the booth and saw Sylvia waiting for him, seated by the operator's desk. She rose at once when she saw he wished to speak with her.

"Tell me something," he said in a low voice; "did Mr. Quarrier know that Leila was to stay overnight with you?"

"Yes," she answered quietly, surprised. "Why?"

Siward nodded vaguely, closed the door again, and said to Plank:

"Yes, Quarrier knows it. Do you think he'll be there to-night? I don't suppose Miss Landis and Mrs. Mortimer know he is in town."

Plank's troubled voice came back over the wire: "I don't know. I don't know what to think. I suppose I'm a little, just a trifle, overworked. Somebody once said that I had one nerve in me somewhere, and Quarrier's probably found it; that's all."

"If you think it better not to come—"

"I'll come. I'll stop for you in the motor. Don't worry, old fellow! And—take your fighting chance! Good-bye!"

Siward, absorbed in his own thoughts, rose and walked slowly out of the booth, utterly unconscious that he had left his crutches leaning upright in the corner. It was only the surprise dawning into tremulous delight on Sylvia's face that at last arrested him.

"See what you have done!" he said, laughing through his own surprise. "I've a mind to leave them there now, and trust to your new cure."

But she was instantly concerned and anxious, and entering the booth brought out the crutches and forced him to take them.

"No risks now!" she said decisively. "We have too much at stake this evening. Leila is coming. Isn't it perfectly delightful?"

"Perfectly," he said, his eyes full of the old laughing confidence again; "and the most delightful part of it all is that you don't know how delightful it is going to be."

"Don't I? Very well. Only I inform you that I mean to be perfectly happy! And that means that I'm going to do as I please! And that means—oh, it may mean anything! What are you laughing at, Stephen? I know I'm excited. I don't care! What girl wouldn't be? And I don't know what's ahead of me at all; and I don't want to know—I don't care!"

Her reckless, little laugh rang sweetly in the old-fashioned, deserted hall; her lovely, daring eyes met his undaunted.

"You won't make love to me, will you, Stephen?"

"Will you promise me the same?"

"I don't know, silly! How do I know what I might say to you, you big, blundering boy, who can't take care of himself? I don't know at all; I won't promise. I'm likely to do anything to-night—even before Leila and Mr. Plank—when you are with me. Shame on you for the shameless girl you've educated!" Her voice fell, tremulously, and for an instant standing there she remembered her education and his part in it.

The slow colour in his face reflected the pink confusion in hers.

"O tongue! tongue!" she stammered, "I can't hold you in! I can't curb you, and I can't make you say what you ought to be saying to that boy. There's trouble coming for somebody; there's trouble here already! Call me a cab, Stephen, or I'll be dragging you into that big, old-fashioned parlour and planting you on a chair and placing myself opposite, to moon over you until somebody puts us out! There! Now will you call me a hansom? ... And I will be all ready at seven. ... And don't dare to keep me waiting one second! ... Come before seven. You don't want to frighten me, do you? Very well then, at a quarter to seven—so I shall not be frightened. And, Stephen, Stephen, we're doing exactly what we ought not to do. You know it, don't you? So do I. Nothing can stop us, can it? Good-bye!"

CHAPTER XIV THE BARGAIN

If a man's grief does not awaken his dignity, then he has none. In that event, grief is not even respectable. And so it was with Leroy Mortimer when Lydia at last turned on him. If you caress an Angora too long and too persistently it runs away. And before it goes it scratches.

Under all the physical degeneration of mind and flesh there had still remained in Mortimer the capacity for animal affection; and that does not mean sensuality alone, but generosity and a sort of routine devotion as characteristic components of a character which had now disintegrated into the simplest and most primitive elements.

Lydia Vyse left Saratoga when the financial stringency began to make it unpleasant for her to remain. She told Mortimer without the slightest compunction that she was going.

He did not believe her and he gave her the new car—the big yellow-and-black Serin-Chanteur. She sold it the same day to a bookmaker—an old friend of hers; withdrew several jewels from limbo—gems which Mortimer had given her—and gathered together everything for which, if he turned ugly, she might not be criminally liable.

She had never liked him—she had long disliked him. Such women have an instinct for their own kind, and no matter how low in the scale a man of the other kind sinks he can never entirely supply the type of running mate that such women require, understand, and usually conceive a passion for.

Not liking him she had no hesitation in the matter; disliking him, whatever unpleasant had occurred during their companionship remained as an irritant to poison memory. She resented a thousand little incidents that he scarcely knew had ever existed, but which she treasured without wasting emotion until the sum total and the time coincided to retaliate. Not that she would have cared to harm him seriously; she was willing enough to disoblige him, however—decorate him, before she left him, with one extra scratch for the sake of auld lang syne. So she wrote a note to the governors of the Patroons Club, saying that both Quarrier and Mortimer were aware that the guilt of her escapade could not be attached to Siward; that she knew nothing of Siward, had accepted his wager without meaning to attempt to win it, had never again seen him, and had, on the impulse of the moment, made her entry in the wake of several men. She added that when Quarrier, as governor, had concurred in Siward's expulsion he knew perfectly well that Siward was not guilty, because she herself had so informed Quarrier. Since then she had also told Mortimer, but he had taken no steps to do justice to Siward, although he, Mortimer, was still a governor of the Patroons Club.

This being about all she could think of to make mischief for two men whose recent companionship had nourished and irritated her, she shipped her trunks by express, packed her jewel-case and valise, and met Desmond at the station.

Desmond had business in Europe; Lydia had as much business there as anywhere; and, although she had been faithless to Mortimer for a comparatively short time, within that time Desmond already had sworn at her and struck her. So she was quite ready to follow Desmond anywhere in this world or the next. And that, too, had not made her the more considerate toward Mortimer.

When the latter returned from the races to find her gone the last riddled props to what passed for his manhood gave way and the rotten fabric came crashing into the mud.

He had loved her as far as he had been capable of imitating that passion on the transposed plane to which he had fallen; he was stupefied at first, then grew violent with the furniture, then hysterically profane, then pitiable in the abandoned degradation of his grief. And, suspecting Desmond, he started to find him. They put him out of Desmond's club-house when he became noisy; they refused him admittance to several similar resorts where his noise threatened to continue; his landlord lost no time in interviewing him upon the subject of damage to furniture from kicks and to the walls and carpets from the contents of smashed bottles.

Creditors with sharp noses scented the whirlwind afar off and hemmed him in with unsettled accounts, mostly hers. Somebody placed a lien on his horses; a deputy sheriff began to follow him about; all credit ceased as by magic, and men crossed the street to avoid meeting with an old companion in direst need.

Still, alternately stupefied by his own grief and maddened into the necessity for action, he packed a suitcase, crawled out of the rear door, toiled across country and found a farmer to drive him twenty miles over a sandy road to a local railroad crossing, where he managed to board a train for Albany.

At Albany, as he stood panting and sweating on the long, concrete platform which paralleled track No. 1, he saw a private car, switched from a Boston and Albany train, shunted to the rear of the Merchants' Express.

The private car was lettered in gold on the central panel, "Algonquin." He boarded the Pullman coupled to it forward, pushed through the vestibule, shoved aside the Japanese steward and darky cook, forcing his way straight into the private car. Quarrier, reading a magazine, looked up at him in astonishment. For a full moment neither spoke. Then Mortimer dropped his suit-case, sat down in an armchair opposite Quarrier, and leisurely mopped his reeking face and neck.

"Scotch and lithia!" he said hoarsely; the Japanese steward looked at Quarrier; then, at that gentleman's almost imperceptible nod, went away to execute the commission.

He executed a great many similar commissions during the trip to New York. When they arrived there at five o'clock, Quarrier offered Mortimer his hand, and held the trembling, puffy fingers as he leaned closer, saying with cold precision and emotionless emphasis something that appeared to require the full concentration of Mortimer's half-drugged faculties.

And when at length Mortimer drove away in a hansom, Quarrier's Japanese steward went with him—perhaps to carry his suit case—a courtesy that did credit to Quarrier's innate thoughtfulness and consideration for others. He was very considerate; he even called Agatha up on the telephone and talked with her for ten minutes. Then he telephoned to Plank's office, learned that Harrington was already there, telephoned the garage for a Mercedes which he always kept ready in town, and presently went bowling away to a conference on which the last few hours had put an entirely new aspect.

It had taken Plank only a few minutes to perceive that something had occurred to change a point of view which he had believed it impossible for Quarrier to change. Something had gone wrong in his own careful calculations; some cog had slipped, some rivet given way, some bed-plate cracked. And Harrington evidently had not been aware of it; but Quarrier knew it. There was something wrong.

It was too late now to go tinkering in the dark for trouble. Plank understood that. Coolly, as though utterly unaware that the machinery might not stand the strain, he started it full speed. And when he stopped it at last Harrington's grist had been ground to atoms, and Quarrier had looked on without comment. There seemed to be little more for them to do except to pay the miller.

"To-morrow," said Quarrier, rising to go. It was on the edge of Plank's lips to say, "to-day!"—but he was silent, knowing that Harrington would speak for him. And the old man did, without words, turning his iron visage on Quarrier with the silent dignity of despair. But Quarrier coldly demanded a day before they reckoned with Plank. And Plank, profoundly disturbed, shrugged his massive shoulders in contemptuous assent.

So Quarrier and Harrington went away—the younger partner taking leave of the older with a sneer for an outworn prop which no man could ever again have use for. Old and beaten—that was all Harrington now stood for in Quarrier's eyes. Never a thought of the past undaunted courage, never a memory of the old victories which had made the Quarrier fortune possible—only contempt for age, a sneer for the mind and body that had failed at last. The old robber was done for, his armour rotten, his buckler broken, his sword blade rusted to the core. The least of his victims might now finish him with a club where he swayed in his loosened saddle, or leave him to that horseman on the pale horse watching him yonder on the horizon.

For now, whether Harrington lived or died, he must be counted as nothing in this new struggle darkly outlining its initial strategy in Quarrier's brain. What was coming was coming between himself and Plank alone; and whatever the result—whether an armed truce leaving affairs indefinitely in statu quo, or the other alternative, an alliance with Plank, leaving Harrington like a king in his mail, propped upon his throne, dead eyes doubly darkened under the closed helmet—the result must be attained swiftly, with secrecy, and with the aid of no man. For he did not count Mortimer a man.

So Quarrier's thin lips twitched and the glimmer of teeth showed under the silky beard as he listened without comment to the old man's hesitating words—a tremulous suggestion for a conference that evening—and he said again, "to-morrow," and left him there alone, groping with uncertain hands toward the door of the hired coupe which had brought him to the place of his earthly downfall; the place where he had met his own weird face to face—the wraith that bore the mask of Plank.

Quarrier, brooding sullenly in his Mercedes, was already far up town on his way to Major Belwether's house.

At the door, Sylvia's maid received him smilingly, saying that her mistress was not at home but that Mrs. Mortimer was—which saved Quarrier the necessity of asking for the private conference with Leila which was exactly what he had come for. But her first unguarded words on receiving him as he rose at her entrance into the darkened drawing-room changed that plan, too—changed it all so utterly, and so much for the better, that he almost smiled to think of the crudity of human combinations and inventions as compared to the masterly machinations of Fate. No need for him to complicate matters when here were pawns enough to play the game for him. No need for him to do anything except give them their initial velocity and let them tumble into one another and totter or fall. Leila said, laughingly: "Oh, you are too late, Howard. We are dining with Mr. Plank at Riverside Inn. What in the world are you doing in town so suddenly?"

"A business telegram. I might have come down with you and Sylvia if I had known. ... Is Plank dining with you alone?"

"I haven't seen him," smiled Leila evasively. "He will tell us his plans of course when he comes."

"Oh," said Quarrier, dropping his eyes and glancing furtively toward the curtained windows through which he could see the street and his Mercedes waiting at the curb. At the same instant a hansom drove up; Sylvia sprang out, ran lightly up the low steps, and the silent, shrouded house rang with the clamour of the bell.

Leila looked curiously at Quarrier, who sat motionless, head partly averted, as though listening to something heard by him alone. He believed perhaps that he was listening to the voice of Fate again, and it may have been so, for already, for the third time, all his plans were changing to suit this new ally of his—this miraculous Fate which was shaping matters for him as he waited. Sylvia had started up-stairs like a fragrant whirlwind, but her flying feet halted at Leila's constrained voice from the drawing-room, and she spun around and came into the darkened room like an April breeze.

"Leila! They'll be here at a quarter to seven—"

Her breath seemed to leave her body as a shadowy figure rose in the uncertain light and confronted her.

"You!"

He said: "Didn't you recognise the Mercedes outside?"

She had not even seen it, so excited, so deeply engaged had she been with the riotous tumult of her own thoughts. And still her hurt, unbelieving gaze widened to dismay as she stood there halted on the threshold; and still his eyes, narrowing, held her under their expressionless inspection.

"When did you come? Why?" she asked in an altered voice.

"I came on business. Naturally, being here, I came to see you. I understand you are dining out?"

"Yes, we are dining out."

"I'm sorry I didn't wire you because we might have dined together. I saw Plank this afternoon. He did not say you were to dine with him. Shall I see you later in the evening, Sylvia?"

"I—it will be too late—"

"Oh! To-morrow then. What train do you take?"

Sylvia did not answer; he picked up his hat, repeating the question carelessly, and still she made no reply.

"Shall I see you to-morrow?" he asked, swinging on her rather suddenly.

"I think—not. I—there will be no time—"

He bowed quietly to Leila, offering his hand. "Who did you say was to dine with you—besides Plank?"

Leila stood silent, then, withdrawing her fingers, walked to the window.

Quarrier, his hat in his gloved hands, looked from one to the other, his inquiring eyes returning and focused on Sylvia.

"Who are you dining with?" he asked with authority.

"Mr. Plank and Mr. Siward."

"Mr. Siward!" he repeated in surprised displeasure, as though he had not already divined it.

"Yes. A man I like."

"A man I dislike," he rejoined with the slightest emphasis.

"I am sorry," she said simply.

"So am I, Sylvia. And I am going to ask you to make him an excuse. Any excuse will do."

"Excuse? What do you mean, Howard?"

"I mean that I do not care to have you seen with Mr. Siward. Have I ever demanded very much of you, Sylvia? Very well; I demand this of you now."

And still she stood there, her eyes wide, her colour gone, repeating: "Excuse? What excuse? What do you mean by 'excuse,' Howard?"

"I have told you. You know my wishes. If he has a telephone you can communicate with him—"

"And say that I—that you forbid me—"

"If you choose. Yes; say that I object to him. Is there anything extraordinary in a man objecting to his future wife dining in the country at a common inn with a notorious outcast from every decent club and circle in New York?"

"What!" she whispered, white as death. "What did you say?"

"Shall I repeat what everybody except you seems to be aware of? Do you care to have me explain to you exactly why decent people have ostracised this man with whom you are proposing to figure in a public resort?"

He turned to Leila, who stood at the window, her back turned toward them: "Mrs. Mortimer, when Mr. Plank arrives, you will be kind enough to explain why Sylvia is unable to accompany you."

If Leila heard she neither turned nor made sign of comprehension.

"We will dine at the Santa Regina," he said to Sylvia. "Agatha is there and I'll find somebody at the club to—"

"Why bother to find anybody?" said Leila, wheeling on him, exasperated. "Why not dine there with Agatha alone? It will not be the first time I fancy!"

"What do you mean?" he said fiercely, under his breath. The colour had left his face, too, and in his eyes Leila saw for the first time an expression that she had never before surprised in any eyes except her husband's. It was the expression of fright; she recognised it. But Sylvia stared, unenlightened, at an altered visage she scarcely knew for Quarrier's.

"What do I mean?" repeated Leila; "I mean what I say; and if you don't understand it you can find the key to it, I fancy. Nor shall I answer to you for my guests. I invite whom I choose. Mr. Siward is one, Mr. Plank is another. Sylvia, if you care to come I shall be delighted."

"I do care to come," said Sylvia. Her heart was beating violently, her eyes were on Quarrier.

"If you go," said Quarrier, showing the glimmering edge of teeth under his beard, "you will answer to me for it."

"I will answer you now, Howard; I am going with Mrs. Mortimer. What have you to say?"

"I'll say it to-morrow," he replied, contemplating her in a dull, impassive manner as though absorbed in other things.

"Say what there is to be said now!" she insisted, the hot colour staining her cheeks again. "Do you desire me to free you? Is that all? I will if you wish."

"No. And I shall not free you, Sylvia. This—all this can be adjusted in time."

"As you please," she said slowly.

"In time," he repeated, his passionless voice now under perfect control. He turned and looked at Leila; all the wickedness of his anger was concentrated in his gaze. Then he took his leave of them as formally, as precisely as though he had forgotten the whole scene; and a minute later the big Mercedes ran out into a half-circle, backed, wheeled, and rolled away through the thickening dusk, the glare of the acetylenes sweeping the deserted street.

Into the twilight sped Quarrier, head bent, but his soft, dark-lashed eyes of a woman fixed steadily ahead. Every energy, every thought was now bent to this newest phase of the same question which he and Fate were finding simpler to solve every minute. Of all the luxuries he permitted himself openly or furtively, one—the rarest of them all—his self-denial had practically eliminated from the list: the luxury of punishing where no end was served save that of mere personal satisfaction. The temptation of this luxury now presented itself; and the means of gratification were so simple, so secret, so easy to command, that the temptation became almost a duty.

Siward he had not turned out of his way to injure; Siward had been in the way, that was all, and his ruin was to have been merely an agreeable coincidence with the purposed ruin of Amalgamated Electric before Inter-County absorbed the fragments. But here was a new phase; Mrs. Mortimer, whom he had expected to use, and if necessary sacrifice, had suddenly turned vicious. And he now hated her as coldly as he hated Major Belwether for betraying suspicions of a similar nature. As for Plank, fear and hatred of him was becoming hatred and contempt. He had the means of checking Plank if Mortimer did not drop dead before midnight. There remained Sylvia, whom he had selected as the fittest object attainable to transmit his name. Long ago, whatever of liking, of affection, of passion he had ever entertained for her had quieted to indifference and the unemotional contemplation of a future methodically arranged for. Now of a sudden, this young girl he had bought—he knowing what she sold and what he was paying for—had become exposed to the infection of a suspicion concerning himself and another woman; a woman unmarried, and of his own caste, and numbered among her own friends.

And he knew enough of Sylvia to know that if anybody could once arouse her suspicion nothing on earth could induce her to look into his face again. Suppose Leila should do so this evening?

Certainly Quarrier had several matters to ponder over and provide for; and first and foremost of all to provide for his own security and the vital necessity of preserving his name and his character untainted. In this he had to deal with that miserable judge who had betrayed him; with Mortimer, who had once black-mailed him and who now was temporarily in his service; with Mrs. Mortimer, who—God knew how, when, or where—had become suspicious of Agatha and himself; with Major Belwether, who had deserted him before he could sacrifice the major, and whom he now hated and feared for having stumbled over suspicions similar to Mrs. Mortimer's. He had to deal with Sylvia herself, and with Siward—reckon with Siward's knowledge of matters which it were best that Sylvia should not know.

But first of all, and most important of all, he had to deal with Beverly Plank. And he was going to do it in a manner that Plank could not have foreseen; he was going to stop Plank where he stood, and to do this he was deliberately using his knowledge of the man and paying Plank the compliment of counting on his sense of honour to defeat him.

For he had suddenly found the opportunity to defend himself; he had discovered the joint in Plank's old-fashioned armour—the armour of the old paladins—who placed a woman's honour before all else in the world. Now, through his creature, Mortimer, he could menace Plank with a threat to involve him and Leila in a vile publicity; now he was in a position to demand a hearing and a compromise through his new ambassador, Mortimer, knowing that he could at last halt Plank by threatening Leila with this shameful danger. Plank must sign the truce or face with Leila an action for damages and divorce.

First of all he went to the Lenox Club and dressed. Then he dined sparingly and alone. The Mercedes was waiting when he came out ready to run down to the great Hotel Corona, whither the Japanese steward had conducted Mortimer. Mortimer had dined heavily, but his disorganised physical condition was such that it had scarcely affected him at all.

Again Quarrier went over patiently and carefully the very simple part he had reserved for Mortimer that evening, explaining exactly what to say to Leila and what to say to Plank in case of insolent interruption. Then he told Mortimer to be ready at nine o'clock, turned on his heel with a curt word to the Japanese, descended to the street, entered his motor-car again, and sped away to the Hotel Santa Regina.

Miss Caithness was at home, came the message in exchange for his cards for Agatha and Mrs. Vendenning. He entered the gilded elevator, stepped out on the sixth floor into a tiny, rococo, public reception-room. Nobody was there besides himself; Agatha's maid came presently, and he turned and followed her into the large and very handsome parlour belonging to the suite which Agatha was occupying with Mrs. Vendenning for the few days that they were to stop in town.

"Hello," she said serenely, sauntering in, her long, pale hands bracketed on her narrow hips, her lips disclosing her teeth in a smile so like that nervous muscular recession which passed for a smile on Quarrier's visage that for one moment he recognised it and thought she was mocking him. But she strolled up to him, meeting his eye calmly, and lifted her slim neck, lips passive under his impetuous kiss.

"Is Mrs. Vendenning out?" he asked, laying his hands on the bare shoulders of the tall, pallid girl—tall as he, and as pallid.

"No, Mrs. Ven. is in, Howard."

"Now? You mean she is coming in to interrupt—"

"Oh no; she isn't fond of you, Howard."

"You said—" he began almost angrily, but she laid her fingers across his lips.

"I said a very foolish thing, Howard. I said that I'd manage to dispense with Mrs. Ven. this evening."

"You mean that you couldn't manage it?"

"Not at all; I could easily have managed it. But—I didn't care to."

She looked at him calmly at close range as he held her embraced, lifted her arms and, with slender, white fingers patted her hair into place where his arm around her head had disarranged it, watching him all the while out of her pale, haunted eyes.

"You promised me," he said, "that you—"

"Oh Howard! Do men still believe in promises?"

Quarrier's face had colour enough now; his voice, too, had lost its passionless, monotonous precision. Whatever was in the man of emotion was astir; his impatient voice, his lack of poise, the almost human lack of caution in his speech betrayed him in a new and interesting light.

"Look here, Agatha, how long is this going to last? Are you trying to make a fool of me? What is the matter? Is there anything wrong?"

"Wrong? Oh dear no! How could there be anything wrong between you and me—"

"Agatha, what is the matter! Look here; let's settle this thing now and settle it one way or the other! I won't stand it; I—I can't!"

"Very well," she said, releasing herself from his tightening arms and stepping back with another glance at the mirror and another light touch of her finger-tips on her burnished hair. "Very well," she repeated, gazing again into the mirror; "what am I to understand, Howard?"

"You know what to understand," he said in a low voice; "you know what we both understood when—when—"

"When what?"

"When I—when you—"

"Oh what, Howard?" she prompted indolently; and he answered in brutal exasperation, and for the first time so plainly that a hint of rose tinted her strange, pale beauty and between her lips the breath came less regularly as she stood there looking at the dull, silvery rug under her feet.

"Did you ever misunderstand me?" he demanded hotly. "Did I give you any chance to? Were you ignorant of what that meant," with a gesture toward the splendid crescent of flashing gems, scintillating where the low, lace bodice met the silky lustre of her skin. "Did you misinterpret the collar? Or the sudden change of fortune in your own family's concerns? Answer me, Agatha, once for all. But you need not answer after all: I know you have never misunderstood me!"

"I misunderstood nothing," she said; "you are quite right."

"Then what are you going to do?"

"Do?" she asked in slow surprise. "What am I to do, Howard?"

"You have said that you loved me."

"I said the truth, I think."

"Then—"

"Well?"

"How long are you going to keep me at arm's length?" he asked violently.

"That lies with you," she said, smiling. She looked at him for a moment, then, resting her hands on her hips, she began to pace the floor, to and fro, to and fro, and at every turn she raised her head to look at him. All the strange grace of her became insolent provocation—her pale eyes, clear, limpid, harbouring no delusions, haunted with the mockery of wisdom, challenged and checked him. "Howard," she said, "why should I be the fool you want me to be because I love you? Why should I be even if I wished to be? You desire an understanding? Voila! You have it. I love you; I never misunderstood you from the first; I could not afford to. You know what I am; you know what you arouse in me?"

Slim, pale, depraved in all but body she stood, eyeing him a moment, the very incarnation of vicious perversity.

"You know what you arouse in me," she repeated. "But don't count on it!"

"You have encouraged—permitted me to count—" His anger choked him—or was it the haunting wisdom of her eyes that committed him to silence.

"I don't know," she said, musingly, "what it is in you that I am so mad about—whether it is your brutality, or the utter corruption of you that holds me, or your wicked eyes of a woman, or the fascination of the mask you turn on the world, and the secret visage, naked in its vice, that you reserve for me. But I love you—in my own fashion. Count on that, Howard; for that is all you can surely count on. And now, at last, you know."

As he stood there, it came to him slowly that, deep within him he had always known this; that he had never really counted on anything else though he had throttled his doubts by covering her throat with diamonds. Her strangeness, her pallor, her acquiescence, the delicate hint of depravity in her, the subtle response to all that was worst in him had attracted him, only to learn, little by little, that the taint of corruption was only a taint infecting others, not her; that the promise of evil was only a promise; that he had to deal with a young body but an old intelligence, and a mind so old that at moments her faded gaze almost appalled him with its indolent clairvoyance.

Long since he knew, too, that in all the world he could never again find such a mate for him. This had, unadmitted even to himself, always remained a hidden secret within this secret man—an unacknowledged, undrawn-on reserve in case of the failure which he, even in sanguine moods, knew in his inmost corrupted soul that his quest was doomed to.

And now he had no more need of secrets from himself; now, turning his gaze inward, he looked upon all with which he had chosen to deceive himself. And there was nothing left for self-deception.

"If I marry you!" he said calmly "at least I know what I am getting."

"I will marry you, Howard. I've got to marry somebody pretty soon. You or Captain Voucher."

For an instant a vicious light flashed in his narrowing eyes. She saw it and shook her head with weary cynicism:

"No, not that. It could not attract me even with you. It is really vulgar—that arrangement. Noblesse oblige, mon ami. There is a depravity in marrying you that makes all lesser vices stale as virtues."

He said nothing; she looked at him, lazily amused; then, inattentive, turned and paced the floor again.

"Shall I see you to-morrow?" he demanded.

"If you wish. Captain Voucher came down on the same train with me. I'll set him adrift if you like."

"Is he preparing for a declaration?" sneered Quarrier.

"I think so," she said simply.

"Well if he comes to-night after I'm gone, you wait a final word from me. Do you understand?" he repeated with repressed violence.

"No, Howard. Are you going to propose to me to-morrow?"

"You'll know to-morrow," he retorted angrily. "I tell you to wait. I've a right to that much consideration anyway."

"Very well, Howard," she said, recognising in him the cowardice which she had always suspected to be there.

She bade him good night; he touched her hand but made no offer to kiss her. She laughed a little to herself, watching him striding toward the elevator, then, closing the door, she stood still in the centre of the room, staring at her own reflection, full length, in the gilded pier-glass, her lips edged with a sneer so like Quarrier's that, the next moment she laughed aloud, imitating Quarrier's rare laugh from sheer perversity.

"I think," she said to her reflected figure in the glass, "I think that you are either mentally ill or inherently a kind of devil. And I don't much care which."

And she turned leisurely, her slim hands balanced lightly on her narrow hips, and strolled into the second dressing-room, where Mrs. Vendenning sat sullenly indulging in that particular species of solitaire known as "The Idiot's Delight."

"Well?" inquired Mrs. Vendenning, looking up at the tall, pale girl she was chaperoning so carefully during their sojourn in town.

"Oh, you know the rhyme to that," yawned Agatha; "let's ring up somebody. I'm bored stiff."

"What did Howard Quarrier want?"

"He knows, I think, but he hasn't yet informed me."

"I'll tell you one thing, Agatha," said Mrs. Vendenning, gathering up the packs for a new shuffle: "Grace Ferrall doesn't fancy Howard's attention to you and she's beginning to say so. When you go back to Shotover you'd better let him alone."

"I'm not going back to Shotover," said Agatha.

"What?"

"No; I don't think so. However, I'll let you know to-morrow. It all depends—but I don't expect to." She turned as her maid tapped on the door. "Oh, Captain Voucher. Are you at home to him?" flipping the pasteboard onto the table among the scattered cards.

"Yes," said Mrs. Vendenning aggressively, "unless you expect him to flop down on his knees to-night. Do you?"

"I don't—to-night. Perhaps to-morrow. I don't know; I can't tell yet." And to her maid she nodded that they were at home to Captain Voucher.

Quarrier had met him, too, just as he was leaving the hotel lobby. They exchanged the careful salutations of men who had no use for one another. On the Englishman's clean-cut face a deeper hue settled as he passed; on Quarrier's, not a trace of emotion; but when he entered his motor he sat bolt upright, stiff-backed and stiff-necked, his long gray-gloved fingers moving restlessly over his pointed heard.

The night was magnificent; myriads of summer stars spangled the heavens. Even in the reeking city itself a slight freshness grew in the air, although there was no wind to stir the parched leaves of the park trees, among which fire-flies floated—their intermittent phosphorescence breaking out with a silvery, star-like brilliancy.

Plank, driving his big motor northward through the night, Leila Mortimer beside him, twice mistook the low glimmer of a fire-fly for the distant lamp of a motor, which amused Leila, and her clear, young laughter floated back to the ears of Sylvia and Siward, curled up in their corners of the huge tonneau. But they were too profoundly occupied with each other to heed the sudden care-free laughter of the young matron, though in these days her laughter was infrequent enough to set the more merciless tongues wagging when it did sound.

Plank had never seen fit to speak to her of her husband's scarcely veiled menace that day he had encountered him in the rotunda of the Algonquin Trust Company. His first thought was to do so—to talk it over with her, consider the threat and the possibility of its seriousness, and then come to some logical and definite decision as to what their future relations should be. Again and again he had been on the point of doing this when alone with Leila—uncomfortable, even apprehensive, because of their frank intimacy; but he had never had the opportunity to do so without deliberately dragging in the subject by the ears in all its ugliness and implied reproach for her imprudence, and seeing that dreadful, vacant change in Leila's face, which the mere mention of her husband's name was sure to bring, turn into horror unspeakable.

A man not prone to fear his fellows, he now feared Mortimer, but that fear struck him only through Leila—or had so reached him until the days of his closing struggle with Quarrier. Whether the long strain had unnerved him, whether minutely providing against every possible danger he had been over-scrupulous, over-anxious, morbidly exact—or whether a foresight almost abnormal had evoked a sinister possibility—he did not know; but that threat of Mortimer's to involve Plank with Leila in one common ruin, that boast that he was able to do so could not be ignored as a possible weapon if Quarrier should by any chance learn of it.

In all his life he had taken Leila into his arms but once; had kissed her but once—but that once had been enough to arm Mortimer with danger from head to foot. Some prying servant had either listened or seen—perhaps a glimmer of a mirror had betrayed them. At all events, whoever had seen or heard had informed Mortimer, and now the man was equipped; the one and only man in all the world who could with truth accuse Plank; the only man of whom he stood in honest fear.

And it was characteristic of Plank that never for one moment had it occurred to him that the sheer fault of it all lay with Leila; that it was her imprudence alone that now threatened herself and the man she loved—that threatened his very success in life as long as Mortimer should live.

All this, Plank, in his thorough, painstaking review of the subject, had taken into account; and he could not see how it could possibly bear upon the matters now finally to be adjusted between Quarrier and himself, because Quarrier was in New York and Mortimer in Saratoga, and unless the latter had already sold his information the former could not strike at him through knowledge of it.

And yet a curious reluctancy, a hesitation inexplicable—unless overwork explained it—had come over him when Siward had proposed their dining together on the very eve of his completed victory over Quarrier.

It seemed absurd, and Plank was too stolid to entertain superstitions, but he could not, even with Leila laughing there beside him, shake off the dull instinct that all was not well—that Quarrier's attitude was still the attitude of a dangerous man; that he, Plank, should have had this evening in his room alone to study out the matters he had so patiently plodded through in the long hours while Siward slept.

Yet not for one instant did he dream of shifting the responsibility—if responsibility entailed blame—on Siward, who, against Plank's judgment and desire, had on the very eve of consummation drawn him away from that sleepless vigilance which must for ever be the price of a business man's safety.

Leila, gay and excited as a schoolgirl, chattered on ceaselessly to Plank; all the silence, all the secrecy of the arid years turning to laughter on her red lips, pouring out, in broken phrases of delight, words strung together for the sheer pleasure of speech and the happiness of her lot to be with him unrestrained.

He remembered once listening to the song of a wild bird on the edge of a clearing at night, and how, standing entranced, the low, distant jar of thunder sounded at moments, scarcely audible—like his heart now, at intervals, dully persistent amid the gaiety of her voice.

"And would you believe it, Beverly," she said, "I formed the habit at Shotover of walking across the boundary and strolling into your greenhouses and deliberately helping myself. And every time I did it I was certain one of your men would march me out!"

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9     Next Part
Home - Random Browse